Journalism in a Time of War

When Journalists Became Targets

Geraldo Rivera in Afghanistan
Reporter and would-be combattant Geraldo Rivera reports from Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2001 (Photo: Fox News broadcast).
The murder of Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal was as revolting as it was outrageous. But why was he killed? Because he was a Westerner, a Kaffir? Because he was an American? Or because he was a journalist? And if he was killed because he was a reporter, what has happened to the protection that we in our craft used to enjoy?

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we can be seen as Kaffirs, as unbelievers. Our faces, our hair, even our spectacles, mark us out as Westerners. The Muslim cleric who wished to talk to me in an Afghan refugee village outside Peshawar last October was stopped by a man who pointed at me and asked: "Why are you taking this Kaffir into our mosque?'' Weeks later, a crowd of Afghan refugees, grief-stricken at the slaughter of their relatives in a U.S. B-52 bomber air raid, tried to kill me because they thought I was an American.

But over the past quarter century I have witnessed the slow, painful, dangerous erosion of respect for our work. We used to risk our lives in wars---we still do---but journalists were rarely deliberate targets. We were impartial witnesses to conflict, often the only witnesses, the first writers of history. Even the nastiest militias understood this. "Protect him, look after him, he is a journalist,'' I recall a Palestinian guerrilla ordering his men when I entered the burning Lebanese town of Bhamdoun in 1983.

But in Lebanon, in Algeria, and then in Bosnia, the protection began to disintegrate. Reporters in Beirut were taken hostage---the Associated Press's Terry Anderson disappeared for almost seven years---while Algerian journalists were hunted down and beheaded by Islamist groups throughout the 1990s. Olivier Quemener, a French cameraman, was cruelly shot down in the Casbah area of Algiers as his wounded colleague lay weeping by his side. Pasting "TV" stickers on your car in Sarajevo was as much an invitation to the Serb snipers above the city to shoot at journalists as it was a [form of] protection.

Where did we go wrong? I suspect the rot started in Vietnam. Reporters have identified themselves with armies for decades. In both World Wars, journalists worked in uniform. Dropping behind enemy lines with U.S. commandos did not spare an Associated Press reporter from a Nazi firing squad. But these were countries in open conflict, reporters whose nations had officially declared war. Wearing a uniform enabled journalists to claim the protection of the Geneva Convention; in civilian clothes they could be shot as spies. It was in Vietnam that reporters started wearing uniforms and carrying weapons---and shooting those weapons at America's enemies---even though their country was not officially at war and even when they could have carried out their duties without wearing soldiers' clothes. In Vietnam, reporters were murdered because they were reporters.

This odd habit of journalists to be part of the story, to play an almost theatrical role in wars, slowly took hold. When the Palestinians evacuated Beirut in 1982, I noticed that several French reporters were wearing Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves. Israeli reporters turned up in occupied southern Lebanon with pistols. Then in the 1991 Gulf war, American and British television reporters started dressing up in military costumes, appearing on screen-complete with helmets and military camouflage fatigues-as if they were members of the 82nd Airborne or the Hussars. One American journalist even arrived in boots camouflaged with painted leaves, although a glance at any desert suggests that this would not have served much purpose.

In the Kurdish flight into the mountains of northern Iraq, more reporters could be found wearing Kurdish clothes. In Pakistan and Afghanistan last year, the same phenomenon occurred. Reporters in Peshawar could be seen wearing Pashtun hats. Why? No one could ever supply me with an explanation. What on earth was CNN's Walter Rodgers doing in U.S. Marine costume at the American camp outside Kandahar? Mercifully, someone told him to take it off after his first broadcast.

Then Geraldo Rivera of Fox News arrived in Jalalabad with a gun. He fully intended, he said, to kill Osama bin Laden. It was the last straw. The reporter had now become combatant.

Perhaps we no longer care about our profession. Maybe we're all to quick to demean our own jobs, to sneer at each other, to adopt the ridiculous title of "hacks" when we should regard the job as foreign correspondent as a decent, honorable profession.

I was astounded last December when an American newspaper headline announced that I had deserved the beating I received at the hands of that Afghan crowd. I had almost died but the article, by Mark Steyn, carried a headline, "Multiculturalist (me) Gets His Due.'' My sin, of course, was to explain that the crowd had lost relatives in America's B-52 raids, that I would have done the same in their place. That shameful, unethical headline, I should add, appeared in Daniel Pearl's own newspaper, The Wall Street Journal.

Can we do better? I think so. It's not that reporters in military costume---Rogers in his silly Marine helmet, Rivera clowning around with a gun, or even me in my gas cape a decade ago---helped to kill Daniel Pearl. He was murdered by vicious men. But we are all of us---dressing up in combatant's clothes or adopting the national dress of people---helping to erode the shield of neutrality and decency that saved our lives in the past. If we don't stop now, how can we protest when next our colleagues are seized by ruthless men who claim we are spies?